The Psychology of Negative Thinking—Getting Stuck in a Loss Frame

21.11.2017 |

Episode #3 of the course Overcoming mindless negativity by Sonia Chauhan


Alison Ledgerwood is a social psychologist at the University of California, where she heads the Attitude and Group Identity Lab. Among her various publications on behavioral patterns of humans, an interesting one is her research on how receptive the human mind is of negativity—both while tilting toward it and while going against it.

In her popular TED Talk, Dr. Ledgerwood explains her research, citing the proverbial “Half Glass Full/Half Glass Empty” analogy as a benchmark. Subjects who focus on the glass being half-full were taken to be in a “gain frame.” Subjects who focused on the glass being half-empty were taken to be in a “loss frame.”

The subjects were then put in situations where they were asked to mentally swing back and forth between these gain and loss frames. The research team concluded that on a basic level, the human mind tends to lean a little more toward negative frames.

It’s easier for us to nudge ourselves from a “gain frame” into the dark pit of a “loss frame.” Interestingly, it takes us significantly longer to shift our focus from a “loss frame” to a “gain frame.”

For example, let’s say you get your graduation scores.

English—A. All good.

Psychology—A. Still good.

Math—B. Your mood drops.

History—A. Somehow, you don’t feel the buzz anymore. That “B” in Math sticks out like a sore thumb in your mind, despite all the other A’s you’ve scored.

Let me simplify. Analyze this sentence:

There is 50% chance of a snowstorm tomorrow.”

How do you perceive this sentence? Most likely, the first thing your brain tells you is that there is a good chance of a snowstorm tomorrow. While the sentence simply states that there is an equal chance of the snowstorm not happening, your mind tends to pick out and focus on the negative outcome at first.

It’s called Getting Stuck in the Negatives.

Can you relate to trying really hard to let go of a negative remark or a rejected thesis, but somehow feeling stuck in your loss frame for a longer time, despite all the good things that keep happening?


The Comforting Knowledge You Get from This

What you need to remember is that: It’s not just you.

Our default settings are tilted toward negativity. There are seven billion more of us who are struggling to get out of negative mind-frames.

To beat yourself up about getting stuck in the negatives is the wrong way to look at the problem. The correct approach is to accept that staying positive is hard work. It takes effort. It won’t come just to you. And that’s okay. Positivity is deliberate.

The exercise I want you to do is to just stop beating yourself up for thinking in a negative pattern.

A useful tip I can give you is this: When you find yourself ruminating over a negative incident, just say something out loud. Say, “Stop.” Say, “There is a 50/50 chance of that happening. I am going to concentrate on the good 50%.”


Key Takeaways That You Can Pin Up

Know the psychology behind negativity. Accept your mind’s psychological buildup. Use it to rationalize negative thoughts and internalize positivity.

Tomorrow, we’ll talk about a particular manifestation of Negative Thinking that’s most relevant to modern times: anxiety.


Recommended video

Getting stuck in the negatives (and how to get unstuck): TEDx talk by Alison Ledgerwood


Recommended book

The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World by Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu


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